Addiction and False Memory Syndrome

By John Rowan

One of the striking things about recent approaches to psychotherapy in the field of addiction is the emphasis that has developed on “getting in touch with the inner child”. Of course there is nothing new about this. Therapists of all persuasions have always found childhood to come up and be import­ant in understanding what is happening in the adult today.

What is new is the emphasis on abuse of one kind or another. Usually by the parents, though sometimes siblings or teachers. It almost seems as if we have not been thorough in our therapy with addicts of one kind or another if we have not dug up some kind of abuse occurring in childhood.

And of course, once we are looking for abuse, we can always find it, especially if we draw the definition widely enough. Again, what is new is the emphasis in some quarters, on sexual abuse. More recently, in the USA, it turns out that if we go looking for ritual satanic abuse, we can find that too.

This has raised many questions about regression in psychotherapy, more particularly, when it is done hypnotically, but even when hypnosis is not used at all. A recent article in TIME magazine asked the question: “Is it not time to abandon the whole idea that childhood events can be responsible for adult problems?” Murmurings about babies and bath water can be heard at this point. The difficulty really seems to emerge because we have a false view of what memory is. The false view, enthusiastically embraced by many hypnotherapists is that memory is laid down accurately in banks, so to speak. All we then have to do is find a way of accessing the bank, and the memories are all there, fixed and in order. This is not so. Let us listen instead to a more cautious and well-seasoned hypnotherapist such as Ernest Hilgard.

He has a discussion of what he calls “fantastic age regressions”, including the celebrated case of “Bridey Murphy” (Kline 1956), which was shown to be a complete fabrication. The main point that Hilgard makes is that hypnotic subjects “will role play an extreme regression on demand” (p. 50). He quotes experimental evidence to show that memories may be “woven into a realistic story that is believed, under hypnosis, by the inventor of the story”.

Hilgard is of course an able and experienced scientist. He is also an experienced hypnotist. When he says that in age regression “the subject creates an hallucinated environment, appropriate to the suggestion, com­bines random memories from the period (and years before and after), and contributes a certain amount of confabulation” (p. 55), there is every reason to take him seriously.

Confabulation is defined as “the act, conscious or unconscious, of invent­ing details of memory about oneself, where true memories are lost (and the person may invent them out of embarrassment). It typically occurs in brain damage secondary to alcoholism”. (Feltham & Dryden 1993).

Of course, it is not only in alcoholism that we find this phenomenon. Confabulation is well known in studies of eye-witness behaviour, it is regularly found that witnesses think they have accurate memories, but are really making sense of what they think must have happened. The memories are not banked images so much as constructed images.

Hilgard says: “… memories revived under hypnosis, no matter how convincing to the subject, cannot be trusted until verified by external criteria”, (e.g. Kelsey 1953). ‘The “will-to-believe” may be so strong in the hypnotist as well as the subject as to give the impression of validity”, (p. 59)

This is strong stuff, and makes it clear that we have to avoid the Scylla of not believing the client, but also the Charybdis of believing the client too much and in the wrong way. What I mean by the wrong way is that it is possible to take the statements of clients about their early life as statements of fact. What is more important from a therapeutic point of view is to take those statements as the best sense the client can make in the here and now. They may or may not be factual; that can only be checked by bringing in other evidence. As with all material coming from the client, we need to be discriminating. It has been said that the ideal therapist needs to be thor­oughly gullible and thoroughly beady-eyed at the same time.

And so, we come back to the question: What is memory? A rather beauti­ful and poetic statement comes from the French psychologist Gaston Bachelard: “In their psychic primitiveness, imagination and memory appear in an indissoluble complex. They are attached to perception, they are badly analysed. The remembered past is not simply a past of perception. Since one is remembering, the past is already being designated in a reverie as an image value. From their very point of origin, the imagination colours the paintings it will want to see again.” (Bachelard, 1991, p. 44)

More scientifically, we can go to the recent work on connectionism – the idea that memory takes place through parallel distributed processes, rather than through a neat linear process. One feature of such systems is default assignment: missing information about an object or event is filled in on the basis of information about similar objects or events, the gaps will be filled with plausible information from elsewhere.

Such models also have the property of graceful degradation, with forgetting, or indeed, physical damage to the system, leading to a noisier or weaker recall of the original memory, rather than the complete removal of certain fragments and the complete preservation of others. (Baddeley 1990)

One danger of memory in this connectionist view is, that we should get confabulation occurring, that is memories would be doctored to suit the present context, and then “remembered” erroneously.

Actually, it has always been the humanistic view that events that remind us of previous events have the power to change our memories of those previous events. We interpret the earlier events in the light of the later events. So, we are continually reprocessing the past. This means that the whole notion of storage has to go and be replaced by a notion of processes that are maintained or transformed in accordance with the values of the person.


Bachelard. G. (1991) Reveries Toward Childhood in J. Adams (ed) Reclaiming the Inner Child. Mandala, London.

Baddeley. A. (1990) Human Memory: Theory & Practice, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, London.

Feltham. C. & Dryden. W. (1993) Dictionary of Counselling, Whurr. London.

Hilgard. E.R. (1986) Divided Consciousness, Wiley. New York.

Kelsey. D.E.R. (1953) Phantasies of Birth and Prenatal Experiences recovered from patients undergoing hypnoanalysis, Journal of Mental Science 99, 216-223.

Kline. M.V. (ed) (1956) A Scientific Report on the Search for Bridey Murphy, Julian Press, New York.